Tag: feral cats

One Unverified Claim Of An Aggressive Stray Prompted A New Jersey Town’s Plan To Trap And Kill Cats

The recent saga of a New Jersey town’s ill-advised plan to “destroy” feral cats highlights almost everything wrong with local government.

First, a notice went out from the northern New Jersey town of Matawan, informing residents that feral cats had become a “nuisance” and their presence posed a danger to “the welfare and safety of both the community and the cats.” The town, in cooperation with the police and SPCA, the notice said, would begin trapping stray, feral and free-roaming felines in November, and any cat not claimed after seven days would be “destroyed.”

The backlash was loud and immediate, and it took the Monmouth County SPCA by surprise.

After receiving angry complaints, the local SPCA posted a notice on Facebook blasting the “outlandish and outrageous campaign.” The SPCA’s leaders said they hadn’t been consulted and hadn’t approved of the policy, blaming the Matawan Animal Welfare Committee, a three-person group comprised of the town’s business administrator, Scott Carew, town councilwoman Melanie Wang and an animal control officer.

“We are completely outraged and disheartened that our organization has been attached to this archaic campaign to euthanize feral cats, when there are so many other successful, humane alternatives,” the Monmouth County SPCA wrote in its statement.

Carew backpedaled in the fallout, claiming the notice was a well-intentioned way of informing people who live in Matawan to keep their cats inside and stop feeding strays and ferals.

“By no means was the goal of the trapping efforts to destroy trapped cats,” Carew told NJ.com. “That said, since there was the chance that cats would be trapped and brought to the shelter, we wanted to alert cat owners whose cats are allowed to roam outside.”

But Carew also said he and the other were “obligated to address the complaint,” and said the town would have to enact “a resumption of trapping efforts” if it received more complaints about the cats. According to a statement by the Matawan police department, in a meeting between local leaders and people concerned about cats in one neighborhood, it was a single complaint about a possibly aggressive feral cat that prompted the plan.

That’s it. That’s all it took, in the eyes of local government officials, to justify a policy of trapping and killing sentient, human-habituated innocent animals, a group that includes free-roaming pets, former pets, strays and true ferals. A single, unverified complaint of a potentially “aggressive” cat, with no further detail about what the word aggressive means in that context, no information about what the cat supposedly did, or even confirmation that the cat was a feral and not a stray or a wandering pet.

When the dust cleared from all the finger-pointing, Carew said his committee should have informed the SPCA of its plans, and police brushed off responsibility by saying they “assumed” the notice was drafted with the cooperation and intent of the SPCA and other local animal welfare groups.

Cat trap
A cat caught during a trap, neuter, return program, which reduces feral/stray populations in the long term without the cruelty of culling. Credit: Pixabay

Local government leadership and incompetence has become a big problem. With the death of newspapers, particularly regional dailies that employed trained journalists, there are entire swaths of the country no longer served by local government watchdogs who have the time, skills and resources to monitor local officials and inform the public.

We’re fortunate that NJ Advanced Media, an online portal for content from more than a dozen New Jersey local newspapers, has found a way to exist as a viable business serving millions of readers throughout its home state. Without it, it’s doubtful the story would have surfaced anywhere.

Lots of people think local government is small potatoes, but the truth is that local officials are responsible for enormous budgets and wield considerable power. The decisions they make very likely have more impact on our lives than decisions made in the halls of congress, even if it’s the latter that gets people’s blood boiling.

In this case we have a meeting conducted in secret, without public notice, that would have determined the fate of an unknown number of animals. We have anonymous, nebulous complaints and allegations about “nuisances.” What constitutes a nuisance? How many cats are involved? Are the cats part of managed colonies and cared for by people who trap and neuter them? None of those questions were answered.

Additionally, instead of taking intermediary steps or using widely available resources — the “other successful, humane alternatives” the SPCA referenced, from the willing cooperation of local shelters to the free toolkit created by the authors of the incredible D.C. Cat Count — the local officials came up with their own ill-advised plan to trap and kill cats.

Outrage by animal lovers and the SPCA were enough to make sure a plan like this was quickly discarded this time around, but you have to wonder how many other places this kind of thing might be happening without so much as a blurb about it.

Hilarious News Report Claims ‘Black Pumas’ Are Rampaging Across The UK

Shhhhh!

No one tell NewsCorp that “black pumas” don’t exist, pumas are native to the Americas, leopards are native to Africa and Asia, and a “black panther” is a color morph, not a species of cat.

A story from Fox News — prompted by a similar story in the UK’s Sun, part of the same Rupert Murdoch-owned media conglomerate — claims the British are “unnerved” by an “uptick” in sightings of cryptid big cats. The mysterious creatures are supposedly running rampant in the British countryside and in the suburbs, according to the article, which identifies them as black pumas, black panthers and black leopards.

Oddly, the story says the sightings are up significantly because there have been three “big cat” sightings in October, immediately before informing readers there are 2,000 such sightings in the UK every year.

Little Buddy and I are not exactly known for our math skills, but 2,000 sightings a year works out to 167 sightings per month, which is a lot more than three. Fifty five times more, in fact. So the story should really be about a dramatic dip in phantom big cat sightings, shouldn’t it?

What evidence does the Fox report cite for its breathless claim about big cats taking over the UK? A pair of grainy security camera videos, including one showing a “big cat sighting” at night, and the word of a “big cat sighting expert,” alternately called a “countryside expert” in other media reports, who by the way happens to be hawking a documentary on the sightings.

“It’s a crucial issue,” self-described wildcat expert Rick Minter told The Sun. “How do we come to terms with living alongside big cats in Britain?”

Puma
Pumas, also known as cougars, mountain lions, panthers and catamounts, are native to the Americas. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For readers unfamiliar with the highest echelons of reputable journalism, The Sun is the UK’s foremost bastion of trustworthy reporting, a tabloid par excellence whose editorial staff are known for breaking stories about “crazed werewolves” and immigrants barbecuing the late queen’s swans when they weren’t running topless photos of models on Page 3. The Sun is owned by NewsCorp, the parent company of Fox News.

As for the two pieces of footage, one is the aforementioned blurry mess recorded by a home security camera at night, and shows a few frames of a cat’s behind and a tail as the felid walks out of the frame. The other is a blurry clip the credulous claim depicts a large cat feeding on a sheep. There’s no indication the figure is a felid of any type.

As far as we’re concerned, there are a few possible explanations for the sightings:

They’re former pets

India the tiger
India the tiger was found wandering the suburbs of Houston in 2021. In this photo, he’s enjoying life in his sanctuary’s large enclosure where he’s got plenty of room, stimulation, toys and even his own rock pool.

If there are indeed big cats roaming the British countryside and suburbs, they would have to be former pets of people who acquired them on the illegal wildlife market, broke the law by “importing” them into the UK, then broke several additional laws by keeping them as pets until the cats quickly grew and the owners realized keeping them is untenable.

Such situations aren’t unheard of, obviously, but they can’t account for a dozen big cats on the loose at any one time, much less more than a thousand as Minter claims.

More importantly, big cats who are taken from their mothers as days-old cubs, sold as pets and later dumped are universally confused, terrified and unable to fend for themselves. They end up roaming suburbia in broad daylight, like a nine-month-old tiger named India who was spotted wandering around the outskirts of Houston in 2021, sniffing out potential food in garbage cans because they don’t know how to hunt.

If these phantom big cats were former pets, they’d be spotted, captured and taken to sanctuaries within a matter of days.

They’re small wildcats formerly native to the area, like the Eurasian lynx

The problem is, the Eurasian lynx was extirpated from the UK about 1,400 years ago. There have been debates among conservationists about reintroducing wild populations to the British countryside — and to Ireland — but no concrete plans as of yet. Proponents say the lynx could be beneficial, keeping deer populations level without major human intervention.

Eurasian lynx adults can grow to about the size of medium dogs, so it’s possible they can be mistaken for “big cats” in blurry video, especially when perspective and/or lack of other objects makes it difficult to place their actual size in context. However, as with big cats, any Eurasian lynx spotted in the UK are likely to be former pets.

They’re housecats

bigkitty
This feral cat, a plain old member of the felis catus species, was repeatedly mistaken for a big cat in western Australia back in 2018.

If witnesses in the UK are mistaking house cats for big cats, they wouldn’t be the first.

Stories abound of little cats prompting “big cat” sightings, from Vancouver (a Savannah cat) to Scranton, Pa. (a missing house cat), to San Jose (a Maine Coon) and even Australia. (A feral cat.)

One wildlife ranger in Australia became so annoyed with fielding frequent big cat reports that he implored people to educate themselves.

“People need to get over the idea the cats are panthers,” wildlife ranger Tim Gilbertson told Australia’s ABC news. “It is just not on. They are big feral cats, at least 50% bigger than a house cat and they are powerful.”

The usual issues are in play here: Fuzzy security camera footage, night sightings, confused witnesses. You’d think there would be more phantom big cat sightings in the US, since pumas can grow to the size of jaguars and could be mistaken for lions, but people who live in areas where pumas range tend to know they’re around and what they look like. They’re also the definition of scaredy cats, reluctant to let humans spot them or get anywhere near them.

Buddy
Frequently mistaken for a tiger: Buddy the Cat.

Ultimately, witness reports count don’t count for much, and not just because memory is malleable.

Thousands of people have reported seeing Bigfoot, chupacabras, the Jersey Devil and the Loch Ness monster, but those creatures are all firmly in cryptid territory.

There’s Occam’s Razor, and there’s common sense: For a primate species like Bigfoot to exist, for example, there would need to be a breeding population, enough prey for the creatures to feed themselves, and someone somewhere would have found remains at some point. (Bigfoot sightings go back to the days before Columbus set foot on New World shores, but it’s only been in the last century or so that the cryptid has entered the popular imagination via folklore and media.)

Likewise, if there are indeed 1,000 big cats prowling the British countryside, as Minter claims, there would be a breeding population, ubiquitous tracks and the remains of prey animals killed in ways consistent with big cat ambush techniques. Cats of all sizes are ambush hunters and have a distinct way of killing prey which is unlike other animals.

The UK’s big cat sightings should be treated more like the UFO sightings in the US and particularly around Area 51. They start with a kernel of potential truth — the existence of a secret base to test experimental military aircraft, or the possibility that big cats who were former pets have been let loose — which leads people to consider the possibility, then when they see something they can’t easily explain, they reach for the exceptional.

But as Carl Sagan famously said, exceptional claims require exceptional proof, and it’s no accident that things like UFOs, cryptid primates and phantom big cats only appear on the grainiest, blurriest and darkest footage.

My money is on domestic cats mistaken for their much larger cousins. Maybe Buddy’s been taking some transatlantic flights under my nose. I’ll have a little chat with him about it and ask him to kindly stop terrifying our friends across the pond.

 

 

 

The New York Times Is Back To Spread Misinformation About Cats

Prompted by the recent news that Polish scientists have added cats to a list of invasive alien species, the New York Times ran an enterprise story on Tuesday titled “The Outdoor Cat: Neighborhood Mascot Or Menace?”

I’m highly critical of print media stories on animals because I’ve been a journalist for almost my entire career, and I know when a reporter has done her homework and when she hasn’t. Unfortunately it looks like Maria Cramer, author of the Times story, hasn’t.

Her story identifies the stray cats of Istanbul as “ferals,” cites bunk studies — including meta-analyses based on suspect data — and misrepresents a biologist’s solutions “to adopt feral cats, have them spayed or neutered and domesticate them.”

Doubtless the biologist understands cats are domesticated, but Cramer apparently does not, and her story misrepresents the domestication process.

Individual animals can’t be domesticated. Only species can. It’s a long, agonizingly slow process that involves changes at the genetic level that occur over many generations. Domestication accounts for physical changes (dogs developing floppy ears while their wolf ancestors have rigid ears, for example) and temperamental ones. A hallmark of domestication is the adjustment to coexisting with humans.

agriculture animal beautiful cat
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In other words, if cats were wild animals it would take hundreds of years to fully domesticate them, and I’m sure no one’s suggesting we wait hundreds of years to solve the free-ranging cat problem.

Ferals can be “tamed,” but the majority of cats living in proximity to humans are strays, not ferals. The difference? Strays are socialized to humans and will live among us, while ferals are not and will not. Strays can be captured and adopted. In most cases ferals can’t, and the best we can hope for is that they become barn cats.

To her credit, Cramer does make efforts to balance the story and quotes the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the U.K., which places the majority of the blame squarely at the feet of humans, noting “the decline in bird populations has been caused primarily by man-made problems such as climate change, pollution and agricultural management.”

Even our structures kill billions of birds a year. That’s the estimated toll just from the mirrored surfaces of skyscrapers, and no one’s suggesting we stop building skyscrapers.

Indeed, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud (MBS), the de facto ruler of Saudi Araba, has been busy commissioning science fiction city designs when he’s not murdering journalists critical of his policies. The design he’s chosen for his ultra-ambitious future city, which he hopes will rival the pyramids in terms of lasting monuments to humanity’s greatness, is a 100-mile-long mirrored megacity called Neom, which is Arabic for “Dystopian Bird Hell.” (Okay, we made that up. Couldn’t resist.)

Take a look:

The point is, of the many factors driving bird extinction, humans are responsible for the majority of them, and if we want to save birds we have to do more than bring cats inside. Additionally, sloppy research portraying cats as the primary reason for bird extinction has resulted in cruel policies, like Australia’s effort to kill two million cats by air-dropping poisoned sausages across the country.

This blog has always taken the position that keeping cats indoors is the smart play, and it’s win-win: It protects cats from the many dangers of the outdoors (predators like coyotes and mountain lions, fights with other neighborhood cats, diseases, intentional harm at the hands of disturbed humans, getting run over by vehicles), ensures they’re not killing small animals, and placates conservationists.

At the same time, we don’t demonize people who allow their cats to roam free, and we recognize attitudes vary widely in different countries. Indeed, as the Times notes, 81 percent of pet cats are kept indoors in the US, while 74 percent of cat caretakers allow their pets to roam in the U.K.

We have readers and friends in the U.K., and we wouldn’t dream of telling them what to do, or suggest they’re bad people for letting their cats out.

Ultimately, tackling the problem depends on getting a real baseline, which Washington, D.C. did with its Cat Count. The organizers of that multi-year effort brought together cat lovers, bird lovers, conservationists and scientists to get the job done, and it’s already paying off with new insights that will help shape effective policies. To help others, they’ve created a toolkit explaining in detail how they conducted their feline census and how to implement it elsewhere.

Every community would do well — and do right by cats and birds — by following D.C.’s lead.

Keeping Cats From Killing Local Wildlife May Be Easier Than We Think

For the past two decades, a handful of birders and “conservationists” have claimed cats kill as many as 3.7 billion birds and 22.3 billion small animals every year in the US alone.

Their claims, repeatedly credulously in the press, have been catastrophic to cats: Hyperbolic headlines have labeled them “stone cold serial killers,” “God’s perfect little killing machines,” and posed questions like “Is your cat a mass murderer?” The headlines, often running in otherwise respectable publications, envision brutal “solutions,” like this one in Scientific American: “Cats Are Ruthless Killers. Should They Be Killed?

Politicians, wildlife conservationists and birders read headlines like the examples above and come up with ruthless policies, like bounties offering $10 for cat scalps and $5 for kitten scalps, government employees stalking public parks with shotguns and literally gunning down strays, and an Australian program designed to kill millions of cats by air-dropping sausages laced with poison.

“They’ve got to taste good,” an Australian scientist who helped develop the sausage formula said. “They are the cat’s last meal.”

Now who’s the serial killer?

Sadly, few people have thought to question the studies that claim jaw-dropping numbers of birds and small mammals are slaughtered by cats every year.

How did the studies arrive at those numbers? Their formula hasn’t varied much from “study” to “study,” and more or less looks like this:

  • Assemble your data from old studies that have nothing to do with cats preying on wildlife, or hand out questionnaires to a handful of cat owners and ask them how many animals they think their free-roaming cats might kill.
  • Since you don’t know how many stray, feral and free-roaming cats exist in the US, invent an arbitrary number. Most of these “studies” put the number of cats anywhere between 25 and 125 million, but higher numbers are better because they make for more apocalyptic predictions and generate more credulous headlines.
  • Completely ignore the primary factors driving avian extinction in the world, which are human-caused: Habitat destruction, habitat defragmentation, wind turbines, pesticides, cars, high tension wires and windows, which are by far the biggest bird-killers.
  • Attribute all of the above to feral, stray and free-roaming cats.
  • Take your original “data” and, without making any adjustments for climate, regional variation, migration patterns, other predatory impacts — or anything else, really — simply extrapolate the total number of bird deaths by multiplying your small dataset by the total number of free-roaming cats in the US, which you invented back in Step 2.
  • Package the entire thing as a rigorous study by Serious Conservationists, write some apocalyptic press releases and hype up your claims in your abstracts, because you know the vast majority of web aggregators and overworked reporters will not have the time to take a deep dive into the text of your study.
  • Encourage activist groups and lawmakers to push for the mass culling of cats, based on your studies.

Please, don’t take my word for it. Read the text of any of the widely-cited studies that have been reported as gospel in the last 20 years. You’ll be astonished at what passes for rigorous scientific work, and how policies that determine the fates of millions of cats are largely shaped by these studies.

The D.C. Cat Count and the importance of a baseline

But there’s hope: A coalition of groups in Washington, D.C., spent more than three years methodically taking a “census” of that city’s cat population using a variety of methods.

They surveyed thousands of households within the city limits to find out how many cat owners allow their pets to roam free. They set up 1,530 trail cameras in wooded areas, ditches, alleys, alongside streams. The cameras are motion-activated and they produced more than five million images — including more than 1.2 million images of cats and more than four million images of local wildlife. The cameras captured photos of squirrels, coyotes, raccoons, possums, deer and even wild turkeys.

They assembled teams of dozens of volunteers to personally survey areas where cats are known to congregate. Then, when all the data was collected, they spent months sorting the results, carefully keeping tally, sorting duplicate sightings of individual cats and confirming data when necessary.

low angle view of cat on tree
Credit: Pixabay/Pexels

When all was said and done, after three years, $1.5 million and countless man-hours, the study determined there are some 200,000 cats living in Washington, D.C., and only about 3,000 of them are truly feral, meaning they’re not pets and not part of managed cat colonies.

The team — which brought together conservationists, bird lovers, cat lovers, shelter volunteers and others who would normally oppose each other on cat-related policies — also documented every step to provide a toolkit for other cities and local governments to conduct their own methodical head counts. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel to take D.C.’s admirable lead.

The leaders of the D.C. Cat Count went to all that trouble because they understood that without knowing exactly how many cats they’re dealing with, where they congregate and how they behave, any policies attempting to deal with their potential impact would be flawed and could end up doing more harm than good.

Making informed decisions about managing outdoor cats

Anyone who continues to cite the old, sloppy studies should be reminded, loudly and often, that they have led to years of failed policies, heartbreaking outcomes, enmity between cat lovers and birders, and widespread misunderstanding of how cats behave and the impact they have on wildlife.

Now the next phase begins: Dispensing with the hysteria and finding real, useful ways to minimize the predatory impact of cats on local wildlife populations.

One of the first follow-up studies to bear fruit comes, not coincidentally, from a research team in nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, and yields some surprising revelations about free-roaming cat behavior and impact.

The biggest takeaway: Because free-roaming cats almost always stick to small areas (spanning only 550 feet, or 170 meters), “cats were unlikely to prey on native wildlife, such as songbirds or small mammals, when they were farther than roughly 1,500 feet (500 meters) from a forested area, such as a park or wooded backyard. We also found that when cats were approximately 800 feet (250 meters) or farther from forest edges, they were more likely to prey on rats than on native wildlife.”

That’s it. In other words, small buffer zones are “the difference between a diet that consists exclusively of native species and one without any native prey,” the study’s authors wrote.

“Our findings suggest that focusing efforts on managing cat populations near forested areas may be a more effective conservation strategy than attempting to manage an entire city’s outdoor cat population,” wrote Daniel Herrera and Travis Gallo of George Mason University.

a cute cat looking up
Credit: Phan Vu00f5 Minh Ku1ef3/Pexels

In other words, minimizing the predatory impact of cats is likely a hyper-local affair, and not something that can be effectively managed on a one-size-fits-all city-wide or county-wide basis.

This is just a first step in the right direction, and follow-up studies will yield further insights that will hopefully lead to fine-tuning strategies in managing free-roaming cats.

We still feel keeping cats indoors — for their own safety, as well as the safety of other animals — is the right thing to do, and all the evidence supports that view.

But what these efforts have shown us is that there is a way forward, and it’s not the contentious, divisive and irresponsible work that has guided cat management policy for two decades. It’s not just possible, but necessary, for all sides to work together to find solutions.

Let’s hope more people realize that, and the old “studies” are relegated to the dustbin where they belong.

Pa. Politician Resigns After Running Over Stray Cats With His Truck

Neighbors who live on a quiet street in rural Pennsylvania were horrified when a man in a white pickup truck intentionally tried to run over stray cats last week, hitting at least one.

Now, thanks to one neighbor who captured part of the attack on video, they’ve identified the man at the wheel, and he’s a local politician.

Frank Pagani Jr. resigned from his seat on the municipal council of Galilee, a rural Pennsylvania town with a population of 379. Video shows Pagani Jr. speeding up and swerving to hit one of two cats who were in the road at the time. He was going so fast he blew through the stop sign at the end of the street.

The brazen politician then made a left turn and casually pulled into his own driveway on a side street.

William Bittner, who captured part of the Dec. 1 hit-and-run on video, said Pagani called him afterward, admitted what he’d done, and said he would resign his council seat.

“He thinks that’s the end of it,” said Bittner, who takes care of the cats along with other neighbors on the street. “You just can’t let an act like that go on without someone being charged.”

The Beaver County Humane Society said its humane officers were investigating the incident, but Pagani Jr. hadn’t been charged as of Dec. 6. Neighbors told the Beaver County Times that police officers were going door to door on Dec. 3 to speak to witnesses. Pagani has not returned calls from at least two local media outlets.

Pagani works with his father in their family business, Pagani and Son Trucking LLC, which contracts with the United States Postal Service to shuttle mail in bulk to and from a processing facility to individual post offices in the area. The company has had three USDOT violations in 2020 and 2021, records show.

As for the cats, their fate remains unknown. The video appears to show Pagani’s truck hitting or running over the tail of one cat, who immediately bolted along with the other cat who was in the street at the time. Those two cats took off with a larger group that was on the nearby sidewalk. The injured cat hasn’t been seen since.

“He could have hit the undercarriage of the front, he could have had his tail run over, he could have been bruised,” Bittner told KDKA, the local CBS affiliate. “We’ve been searching and searching and we can’t find him.”

”And when I feed him in the morning and night, he’s not showing up. So we don’t know whether [he] ran off to die or…” Bittner said, trailing off.

In a follow-up post on Facebook, Bittner explained that the strays are part of a managed TNR colony, with neighbors pitching in to help feed the cats and adopt out kittens. So far, 28 cats have been trapped and fixed.

People in the neighborhood believe Pagani was taking matters into his own hands, which follows a disturbing trend of vigilantism toward cats by people who either hate them or think they’re protecting local wildlife by killing cats.

“We don’t need his idea of animal control,” Bittner wrote.